How the War on Drugs Destroyed My Family

The punishments my father, brother and sister experienced--arrest, incarceration and HIV/AIDS--for misusing a controlled substance caused a lifetime of grief for my family.

I don't recall a time when the drug war did not affect my life. The punishments my father, brother and sister experienced--arrest, incarceration and HIV/AIDS--for misusing a controlled substance caused a lifetime of grief for my family. As a mother and a health professional, I am against the criminalization of drug use imposed by the war on drugs.

I will not push away a person who uses drugs. I do not agree with those who say drugs menace children and the majority of the people in the drug culture are criminals.

I devote my life to helping people find their way to health. Like any mother I am willing to give advice, and I’m willing to say “time out.” But I am not willing to call someone who has a dependency problem a criminal because they have contact with illegal drugs. 

A person who is dependent on a drug requires patience – there must be a willingness to meet the person and find out what we can do to help. We must let them start a journey, and not insist from the beginning that they reach the destination.  To tell someone to stop now, give it up, be drug-free is often destructive, leads to failure and causes despair and loss of hope. The approach I support would let our children build on their strengths and increase their confidence.

I appreciate the value of patience. We used to hear that giving up cigarettes was the hardest thing a person can do. Today we know that people can give up their nicotine habits. We know that people can change their eating habits. These are good things to learn. They give us reasons to hope. I used to be told that a person was “hooked” on drugs; that heroin, marijuana, and cocaine were fiendish substances that changed brain chemistry--they had an evil power.

Today we know that changing a habit is easy for some people and difficult for others. We also know that the excitement of gambling can be habit-forming and with gambling there is no chemical, nothing is consumed, but a person can become dependent. We can help people change their habits, but we can’t be sure when they will succeed. A person who diets may lose weight. After they lose weight they may gain it back or even become heavier. We wouldn’t call this person a criminal. We shouldn't call drug users criminals because they give up a habit with difficulty.

Making the right choices about drugs that are illegal is no different from making other choices about other habits; except under prohibition we threaten people with arrest, stop and frisk them based on pernicious profiles, and trap them in the criminal justice system.

In every society some are blessed with habits that work well, and some have problems with their habits. There is no good reason to use the criminal law to cope with a person’s drug habits.

More persons age 35-54 die from drug overdoses than automobile accidents. It not the young who are at greatest risk of an OD. People from all walks of life who mix licit and illicit drugs die most frequently from drug overdoses. We have a drug called naloxone that restores breathing immediately and ends a drug overdose. At my health program we teach people, not doctors, but individuals with no medical training how to apply this drug. We want people who live with drug users to have this medicine and to help a person whose life is threatened. A person with a breathing difficulty needs help immediately.

Drugs like naloxone and health care motivated by compassion are the alternatives to prohibition. Harm-reduction uses public health to educate. It uses medicine to intervene and make people more comfortable with their lives. I join with you. I join with Moms United all over the world to say, stop saying that using drugs is a crime. With patience and compassion we can help people live longer, healthier lives.


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Joyce A. Rivera is founder and executive director of St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction, adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and steering committee member of MomsUnited to end the drug war.